Fore In Hand: How I Learned To Golf At Brooks Brothers

Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue flagship is a great place to pick up a striped tie. It’s also a great place to learn the world’s most difficult sport.

I’ve played a lot of sports in my life — probably 15 or so if you count things like kayaking and mountain biking. Fencing, badminton and swing dancing (which is sort of sportlike) were the biggest obsessions. Tennis, table tennis and surfing less so. I learn quickly, and after attaining a certain superficial mastery move on to something else. It comes with being a Sagittarius: shooting arrows until you hit the target, then galloping off in search of a new one. It may seem like fickleness, but it’s really just a sense of adventure and the desire to experience as much of life as possible.

In every case I never would have predicted the new obsession, and that goes especially for the latest one: golf.

I remember being age 11 and hitting a hole-in-one on a miniature golf course while on a family vacation. My father gave me a strage look, perhaps wondering if there was some untapped talent inside of me. But it was never encouraged, and it wasn’t until age 25 that I first tried to hit a golf ball.

I was doing a golf-related story for a magazine and was interviewing some guys at a course. They suggested I go to the range and try hitting some balls. I spent 15 minutes unable to get a single ball into the air. I quit with scoffing indifference, convinced the sport was a combination of impossible and impossibly boring.

Fast forward 16 years to March of this year, when I visited Brooks Brothers’ newly remodeled third floor, where there is a $60,000 super high-tech golf simulator. I was encouraged to take a few swings, and Brooks’ PR director snapped this photo of my baseball-inspired finish:

I remained uninterested, but a couple of months later I began dating a woman who plays golf (her company also manufactures most of Brooks Brothers’ Chinese-made clothing — talk about sleeping with the enemy). The seed must have been planted in my head that golf was a possibility. After all, if she could do it, so could I. So one day, while browsing in Brooks, one of the hosts of the simulator encouraged me, carnival barker-style, to come up and take a few whacks. I ended up spending two hours learning the rudiments of golf, and went back for two more hours the following day.

It was July 13. Since then I’ve devoted myself completely to studying the sport, and this week, just shy of my third month, I played a full course for the first time. But let’s backtrack.

I started going to Brooks regularly. The guys who run the simulator are from Golf Manhattan, a simulator lounge in Midtown. The simulator is a large soft screen you hit balls into. A set of cameras record the speed, trajectory and spin of your ball flight. Instant physics calculations are made, and your shot is replicated in the virtual world of the computer-generated golf course. If you hit your shot long and straight, you make it to the green. If you slice it wide, you watch your ball fly into the lake. Putting is a little weird, as there’s no real hole to hit into, but overall it’s invaluable training for the process of advancing down a 500-yard fairway, changing clubs along the way to adapt to the decreasing yardage, and for working on your swing.

I also began watching the Golf Channel daily, downloaded a couple dozen instructional videos, read the breviary “Golf in the Kingdom,” and started bicycling to the driving range on Randall’s Island. Perhaps from finesse moves such as the parries in fencing, or the delicate underspin pushes in table tennis, controlled pitches from 100 yards or less came to me the most naturally, while driving off the tee was so difficult I resolved to just forget it for six months.

I bought nearly all my equipment on eBay. After being told there was no reason to get expensive clubs at the beginning stage, and that any set would do so long as they were designed to be forgiving, I scored a complete set on eBay for $30. Being a style guy with his priorities straight, I then proceeded to drop $150 on brown-and-white spectator-style golf shoes. Putter, sand wedge and pitching wedge, all in great condition, were found at a thrift shop for $8 each. The hickory-shaft Callaway lob wedge, pictured below, ran $60 on eBay.

Somewhere around the seven-week mark I put my skills to the test. The girlfriend and I rented the lounge at Golf Manhattan for two hours and played an 18-hole course on the simulator. Using a 5 iron as the longest club, I came out with a score of 77, which no one could believe. Granted there were a few mulligans (do-overs) when I made a total miss-hit, and gimme putts were probably set at a generous nine feet. Still, as we left the building, my girlfriend, who shot a 95, said, “You’re not a beginner anymore.” It was a great compliment but was also daunting, as I knew I now had no excuse not to learn to drive off the tee.

It wasn’t until the following day that I realized why I’d hit so well: I hadn’t thought about technique at all. I’d gone there to have fun and was only thinking about the yardage and my club selection. In other words, I was thinking about the game, not my feet, hips, shoulders, arms, wrists, takeback, follow-through, grip or the countless other things that go into swinging a golf club. In short, I was in the zone.

I found the zone again that same week the first time I went to play outdoors. In Corona Park in Queens, right next to the tennis center at Flushing Meadows, is a “pitch and putt” golf course consisting of 18 holes of 30 to 80 yards. Every hole is a par three, meaning you’ve got one shot to land on the green and two putts to get it in the hole. The first hole is 80 yards, and I made par on it — the first hole I’d ever played on a course not run by a computer. It was like catching my first wave on a surfboard.

But highs in golf rarely last. Soon the nightmare holes came: Pitches didn’t find the green, chips skated from one end of the green to the other, and it took four putts to get the damn ball in the hole. But I found the zone on the back nine, shooting a 29 against a par of 27. I was so focused it was as if my mind was willing the ball into the hole. I’ve played that short course another five times since then and have never been able to match the determination I had that first time out.

Golf is like that, and if you’re philosophically inclined, will constantly present itself as a metaphor for life. Unfortunate events can be miraculously reversed by a fantastic rescue shot. And of course attitude determines everything. Putt timidly and nervously and the ball will never find the hole. Visualize it going in, and maybe it will.

I learned that the first time the girlfriend and I decided to have some fun and play the miniature golf course at the Randall’s Island Golf Center. The course doesn’t have silly loop-the-loops, but real undulating greens that force you to pick your line carefully. On the first hole, my first shot ended up too close to the brick boundary to take a backswing, so I bounced it off the wall billiard-style into the hole. The girlfriend gave me a look of quizzical befuddlement. A couple of holes later the first hole-in-one came, and she started to look annoyed. When we came to a crazy U-shaped hole that went up and down with an extreme sideways bank, I visualized the shot going in (as I’d learned from an instructional video), and proceeded to knock it in.

Now the girlfriend looked at me like I’d just walked on water. I think she asked if I was from another planet. I told her to just go up and do it. She tried but made a lousy shot. I said try again and don’t let the ball hit the wall — hit it just enough to trickle down the middle. She proceeded to hole it, and jumped up and down ecstatically. She’d gone from disbeliever to believer in 30 seconds.

Golf requires a certain faith. How else could anyone believe it’s possible to hit a ball down a gopher hole from 500 yards away with a little f**cked-up stick, as Robin Williams hilariously described it, in just a few strokes? When I played a full course for the first time last week — at Kissena Park in Flushing — I went there expecting something amazing to happen, and it did. Despite slicing nearly every drive, I parred two holes (with a birdie putt rolling off the lip), and made bogeys (just one over par) on seven more.

When I first tried to hit golf balls 16 years ago, I concluded it was impossible. Now I know it’s not, and if you can rise to the challenge and handle the frustration of golf, you’ll feel like you can do anything. It’s also more affordable than you might think, and more fun than television would suggest. And if you work in Midtown Manhattan, you can stop by Brooks Brothers on your lunch hour and start learning to play.

I may sound like an evangelist, but a better term would be believer. Thank you Brooks Brothers and Golf Manhattan for showing me the way. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

26 Comments on "Fore In Hand: How I Learned To Golf At Brooks Brothers"

  1. Forget about the golf … women go out with you?

  2. Seems like you’ve been bitten by the bug. I was bitten 45 years ago at the tender age of 14. I’ve never looked back. Great shoes, haven’t seen those in years. Didn’t think they were still made. I had a pair like that around 1983. I wore them so much the toes curled and the leather soles disintegrated. Then, they were expensive at $ 60. I believe the Callaway wedge has a steel core for modern performance, a nice item. The Hunter green bag is very classy, although a bit heavy for carrying.

    I’ve always walked the course; riding is just not golf. As far as simulators go, they’re great, but not reliable as an indicator for live golf. Nice in the winter, though. Thrift shops are great for finding almost collectible golf clubs. I have bought clubs from the 1930’s, early steel shafts with plastic coating called pyratone. Surprising, they play very well, which the modern manufacturers would not have you believe.

    As far as women go, enjoy golf. Leave the women at home or the mall. Fore!

  3. Just a post script. I think the best books for golf instruction are the ones written by Bobby Jones. His style of writing is a very friendly, nice guy attitude. He was the only golfer to achieve the Grand Slam, 4 major tournaments in a single year, 1930 I think. He was also a true Ivy, having a degree from Harvard, in English I believe. He also had degrees in engineering and law. Reading his biography is worth any golfer’s free time, in addition to his instructional books and videos.

    Definitely, a man to admire.

  4. I wouldn’t recomend using bobby jones instructional books, hickory shafts and old ball technology really have nothing to do with the modern game. His bio is an interesting read I will agree.

  5. Golf is a great sport, although my focuses in competitive athleticism have always been in lacrosse, soccer, tennis or crew, I have always enjoyed golf. During the warmer months when I have a weekend off from university or my summer employment I will always get together to play a game with my grandfather.

    The trick is to keep in mind that the worst day spent on the golf course still beats any day spent at work or in class, that way you can laugh and enjoy yourself even after a three putt.

  6. Christian, having recently taken up golf myself, I share your enthusiasm. I suggest you consider taking some lessons. I did, and it made a huge difference.

  7. The problem with Golf is unless you are a natural athlete, you need to play regularly to establish skill; and not the very least a handicap. A public course is a great place to learn/practice. Unfortunately, Kissena is probably the shortest 18 holes in the tri-state area. Not sure of the history behind Kissena, but a number of the NYC courses at one time or another were private clubs that lost some yardage to Robert Moses for roads (Parkways) and ultimately the private clubs left with rump fairways & missing greens folded. My favorite is Forest Park which now has the original practice greens between the third hole and the 4th tee box!

  8. Yes, no par 5s at Kissena, not that I could possibly care at this point. The holes are a lot longer than pitch n’ putt!

    Clearview, Douglaston and Forest Park are the other courses near me here on the (far) east side.

    And thank god for being a natural athlete, since it’s challenging enough. Some of the swings I see at the range are truly epileptic.

    BTW, I need more golf buddies. Send me an email, Kip, if you’d like to play sometime.

  9. Michael Mattis | October 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm |

    @gordon: “I wouldn’t recommend using bobby jones instructional books, hickory shafts and old ball technology really have nothing to do with the modern game.”

    Funnily enough, Chenners and I were just talking about that — how some get into a sport and then get obsessed with “vintage” gear. On the flight back from New York on Friday, I came across this article in Forbes Life:

  10. @MichaelMattis: Loved the article. I teach part time and we see these guys come in with persimmon heads occasionally; we call them Civil War re-enactors. While there is a nice look, feel and sound to the old clubs, if you are interested in playing your best they just have to move on. Get retro with head covers and bags, but use technology as your friend, the game is hard enough.

  11. I’m no good at golf, but it’s the most fun I have swearing for three hours. I have, also, never had anyone “teach” me how to do it properly. Never thought a clothing store would be the place to learn, but… it’s the 21st century. I suppose anything’s possible.

    Also, to walk back a few comments. How odd that Richard would poke fun at you, but I’ve always assumed there was a good reason we don’t see his face, or any part of his “wife” over on his blog. What a sad, little boy he is.

  12. Christian – great post as usual, love to read the site.

    But watch out for that Hickory Stick lob wedge. They look so good. I’m the third-generation owner of one. My grandfather and dad were scratch golfers. And I take that club out prepared to hit a perfect one, and it bites me in the ass every time. I just can’t hit it right. Maybe it’s like buying a race car as one’s first sports car (buy a Miata or S2000 before you buy a 911…) but it’s a very tricky club to hit. And once one gets angry on the course, one takes three holes to calm down, which ruins three holes.



  13. Tad, the first time I went to the short course I brought my pitching wedge. Eventually I noticed that the balls were rolling too much after landing, so the next time I brought my sand wedge (this was probably around the time I learned sand wedges aren’t just for sand). A bit tricky to use at first, but when the ball came down on a good shot it really sat.

    I ended up playing with an old man who said I should get a lob wedge. I researched them and found that the modern steel-shafted Hickory Sticks have great feel, as well as being a lot handsomer than any modern club with X-treme graphics.

    Its first time in action, on the full course last week, it gave me my most satisfying shot of the day, which wasn’t one of my few straight drives, or a long approach shot with an iron, but a rescue shot. I was about 30 yards on the side of the green, buried in deep grass for the first time. The green was at the top of a steep plateau about 15 feet high — I could just see the tip of the flag. I opened the face and my stance with the Hickory Stick and swung as hard as I could through the jungle. Ball flew up straight to the flag and when I climbed up, was lying 15 feet from the hole.

    But a few days later I took it to the short course, and ended up christening it my “tricky stick.” The GF laughed as I alternately kissed it and wanted to throw it in the trash. I think the key is finding the right distance (there’s probably a reason it’s stamped “40 yards or less”), as well as strength of swing. When I tried to strain it over 60 yards it was underpowered, and was also hard to control at short distances. But with a relaxed 3/4 swing it twice got me 6 feet from the hole from 45 yards out.

  14. I’m going to upgrade my clubs, so if anyone wants to take over my starter set, send me an email.

  15. This way lies madness.

    Walk away now while you still can! haha

  16. Do you play, Woofie?

  17. Great article Christian–thanks for sharing. Picking up golf from a BB simulator–now I’ve heard everything! Lucky for you to have found a girl to share the game with. And of course, props on having reached a respectable (dare I say above-average?) level of play so early on; while I’m now a 90s shooter (career low of 79) it took a long time (and a lot of patience to get there). Most people can’t break 100 and look like total slobs to boot; the fact that you’ve got both skill and style puts you far ahead of the pack. Two things to remember:

    1.) There is no better test of a man’s character than a round of golf. No personality tests and or psychological study can match a tough course and a $2 Nassau played completely by the book.

    2.) You’ll arrive at the first tee every time expecting perfection and will invariably fall short. Golf, or as I call it, the relentless pursuit of unattainable perfection.

  18. Also check out Dave Pelz’s “Short Game Bible” for the most comprehensive, technical, analytical (he was an ex-NASA astrophysicist) but useful guide to the game from 100 yards and in.

  19. Thanks for the kind words and tips, Luke (I’ll order that short-game book), but what’s a $2 Nassau?

  20. This golfing girlfriend of yours–is she one of the two you’re swing dancing with here?

  21. @Henry


  22. best golf book (as well as best selling sports book of all time) it’s really about life i guess- the Little Red Book, harvey pennick- an old time texas club pro..Little Red Book, get it.

  23. These are so much fun testing out your swing. We have one of these simulators on campus at Pottruck.

  24. Love that you caught the bug. I write a culture blog on golf. I think you’ll enjoy it. A True


  25. Skip Castaneda | December 11, 2011 at 5:47 pm |

    Great article Christian! Reminded me of when I first learned to play in 1993. I got dumped by a young woman, and was taking it very hard. A friend suggested I take up golf to keep myself occupied. I was given a hand me down set of clubs. I was hooked!
    I love the game and play as often as I can. I agree that Harvey Pennicks Little Red Book is a great golf book. Oh, I also hit thrift shops in search of a treasure!

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